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What is Systems Theory?

Klaus Strasser
Klaus Strasser

Systems theory usually is the interdisciplinary study of complex structures that may occur in nature, society, or science. Examples of complex structures can vary widely, entailing everything from ant colonies to political parties to languages. Systems theorists may analyze how such systems are formed, how they function, or what is the intended goal of a system.

The field of systems theory emerged as a corollary of biological studies. Following the analysis of ecological systems in nature, system theorists applied the basic logic of systems to non-ecological phenomenon. Pioneers in the field, such as the Hungarian scientist Bela H. Banathy, argued that a clear definition of the concept of system is integral to establishing the foundations of any science, while concomitantly determining the possibility of its growth.

Some systems theorists study how the biological system in a beehive works.
Some systems theorists study how the biological system in a beehive works.

Many system theorists have attempted to develop a general theory that would explain the function of any conceivable system. This approach would explicate systems as diverse as a beehive or a government according to the same general principles and laws. Such a hypothesis infers that there is a basic logic integral to all systems.

According to the debate in the academic literature over what exactly constitutes a system, many different approaches to systems theory have been proposed. Commonly, the key characteristics of a system have been identified as the relationship between perceived individual parts to form a holistic entity. This approach defines the consistency of a system according to uniform sets of relations and patterns of behavior, also known as a closed system. For example, the system of an ant colony is constituted by the various patterns of behavior of the specific ants that are its members. These differing behaviors will in turn be related to each other, yielding the notion of an overall homogeneity of a system defined in terms of its consistent function.

Some academics oppose the notion of the closed system with the concept of the open system. They argue that the definition of any closed system involves a fallacy of reduction that simplifies the nature of a system. In contrast, open system theorists emphasize that many times systems can be defined in terms of what they exclude, as opposed to what they include, or that parts, which are not viewed as part of a system, may be integrated into it.

Concepts such as emergence also are an important part of systems theory. Emergence describes the phenomenon of how a simple set of relations between parts can create something entirely heterogeneous to these parts. Common examples of emergence include the Internet and the stock market.

Discussion Comments


Systems theory forms an important part of sociology. Understanding how societies form systems is a key part of understanding human society as a whole. The way the world has chosen to structure itself reflects the collective self-understanding and psychology of humanity. Grasping the very small nuances of our thinking enables us to improve.


Family systems theory is an important way of observing the family as a whole. The family can behave like an individual, having distinct emotional connections and understanding of who is gifted in what manner. In the example of the church, the apostle Paul tells Christians that they are to behave "like a body." Each part of the body has specific functions and can enable the community to act like a whole. This is good systems theory.


Everything operates using systems. If there were not systems there would be no order. Understanding how these systems work is the ultimate goal of all academic and scientific endeavor. If we were to lose the amount of understanding of these systems which we have accrued over the centuries, we would be forced to return to the ways of the past.


Assuming that there are various systems at work in any situation can give a person a natural edge on the situation itself. Rather than being unaware, one can begin to grasp the different factors of order and systemic structure, using this knowledge to their advantage. If you walk into a workplace and expect things to be handed to you, you are in for a tough surprise. It is better to ask questions and fully understand systems and functioning of individuals in order to do well.

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    • Some systems theorists study how the biological system in a beehive works.
      Some systems theorists study how the biological system in a beehive works.